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Updated: Oct 2, 2020

There’s this single pane comic I’ve seen floating around social media. A white man and a woman of color are on a running track getting ready for a footrace. The man’s course contains a few track and field hurdles spaced out evenly and predictably. The woman’s course, in addition to the literal hurdles, also features a fraught and terrifying array of bombs and booby traps, crocodiles and cracks in the earth. “What’s the matter?” mansplains the white guy as he begins to run. “It’s the same distance!”

This dynamic, this dichotomy, this disparate existence in the country that upheld the doctrine of “Separate But Equal,” would come to define the life and career of our concert’s final composer, Florence Price.

By any metric, Florence Price was a remarkable person. She was born and grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, the daughter of a biracial teacher (and a pianist), and the city’s only Black dentist (and a visual artist). Her parents raised her to appreciate art and to value the importance of education, and it clearly stuck with her. She was prodigious in every sense of the word: by the age of four, she was already playing piano recitals; by 11, she had published her first composition. Price graduated high school as valedictorian at 14, then attended the prestigious New England Conservatory and matriculated in just three years. She was the only student (out of 2,000) to pursue a double major, earning degrees in both piano and organ performance. As it happens, she almost certainly inspired another composer on our program, William Grant Still, who was eight years Price’s junior and also grew up in Little Rock; their families knew each other well and the two would remain lifelong friends.

As a mixed-race woman living through the Jim Crow Era, Price was no stranger to adversity or discrimination, but she steeled herself against any and all obstacles to her progress. When she was denied admission to the all-white Arkansas Music Teachers Association, Price started her own Little Rock Club of Musicians and chose to teach music in the city’s segregated Black schools. When a white lynch mob murdered a Black man named John Carter in Little Rock in 1927, Price moved her family to Chicago to flee the ensuing racial unrest. When the Great Depression hit two years later, Price put food on the table by teaching piano, playing organ, and composing jingles for radio ads. When her husband lost his job and became bitter and abusive, Price didn’t hesitate to divorce him and raise their two children as a single mother. When faced with overwhelming hardship that would surely break a less resolute person, Price flourished and entered a period of great creativity that led to a staggering compositional output of more than 400 works. Price’s breakthrough came in 1931 with her award-winning “Symphony in E Minor,” which, two years later, would earn her the distinction of becoming the first Black woman to have a composition performed by a major American orchestra (in this case, the all-white, all-male Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Frederick Stock).

Florence Price (1887-1953)

Symphony No. 4 in D Minor (1945)

II. Andante cantabile

Price’s tenacious personality came through in her teaching and her music. Her students described her as kind and gentle, but capable of speaking quite sternly and forcefully when merited, and we can hear elements of each in this evening’s selection, the Andante cantabile from her Fourth Symphony. The oboe begins with the melody, a sweet and reassuring tune that sounds like a spiritual; this becomes even more apparent when solo viola takes up the line and sings it with soulful portamenti. Much of Price’s musical language was rooted in what she referred to as the “Negro folk idiom,” the music originally created by enslaved Black people. In a 1938 essay, Price described her admiration for this unique American style and its potential to create a distinct musical identity for Black Americans:

“We are even beginning to believe in the possibility of establishing a national musical idiom. We are waking up to the fact...that we already have a folk music in the Negro spirituals—music which is potent, poignant, compelling. It is simple heart music and therefore powerful. It runs the gamut of emotions.”

Price often utilized these melodies in her works—for example, in the first movement of this symphony, she directly quotes the well-known spiritual “Wade in the Water.” Her signature compositional style is what we might now refer to as musical code-switching, a blending of the “classical” and the “vernacular”:

“In some of my work, I make use of the [Negro folk] idiom undiluted. Again, at other times, it merely flavors my themes. And still at other times, thoughts come in the garb of the other side of my mixed racial background. I have tried for practical purposes to cultivate and preserve a facility of expression in both idioms.”

The spiritual theme winds its way through the opening section of the movement, blossoming and gaining momentum, transforming into something altogether more active, more curious, more defiant until all of a sudden...we’re in church. A lush brass chorale led by solo trumpet emerges from the silence, resonant and resplendent. You can almost picture the warm sunlight streaming through the stained-glass windows, dust particles dancing in the beams, the preacher at the pulpit while Florence Price sits at the organ, calmly laying down the steadfast accompaniment to a hopeful sermon. The intersection between life, music, and church was an important one to Price; this section is meant to be an escape from the mundane and the profane, a place of sanctuary and stability.

Like all good things, the service ends; just as abruptly as before, we are thrust back into the uncertainty of everyday life. The anxiety resurfaces, but this time, Price is ready. She promptly responds in stride with a declamatory orchestral tutti, as if to state, “Here I am! I’m not going anywhere!” We hear a triumphant new variation of the spiritual theme, which swells once more and climaxes with a crash from the tam-tam. After a brief silence, Price returns to the spiritual in its original form three more times for the dénouement of the movement: first in the cello, rhapsodic and fluid; next as one last orchestral tutti, a final display of collective solidarity and fellowship; and lastly in the solo trumpet, accompanied by the harp, the heavenly “amen” that brings us to a tranquil yet determined conclusion.

The Fourth Symphony—and the rest of Price’s oeuvre, for that matter—is clearly the work of a mature and immensely talented composer. Still, Price struggled throughout her career to have her music published and programmed. As PROTESTRA Music Director Michelle Rofrano explored in one of our recent blog posts, Price wrote a letter in 1943 to Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Serge Koussevitzky imploring him to judge and program her music “on merit alone,” and to ignore her “two handicaps” of being both Black and a woman. Koussevitzky never replied. Price faced the same issue with publishers; as such, much of her music remained unpublished at the time of her sudden death in 1953.

For this very reason, the Fourth Symphony and about 200 of Price’s other compositions were very nearly lost to time. In 2009, Vicki and Darrell Gatwood bought a run-down house in St. Anne, Illinois. The floors were warped and broken, there was a hole in the roof, and at one point while the new owners were away, burglars broke in, vandalized the house, and stole the antique grand piano that had somehow survived the elements. In a room full of filing cabinets, the burglars had left thousands of sheets of paper scattered all over the floor. They all bore the same name, “Florence Price,” and upon further inspection, the Gatwoods began to see that these were no ordinary papers...this was handwritten sheet music. It just so happened that they had purchased Florence Price’s summer home, which turned out to be a veritable time capsule, a secret repository of works by a composer about whom the world had forgotten for more than half a century.

The Gatwoods did some research and tracked down the team of music historians at the University of Arkansas who maintain a collection of Price’s works and papers. That team traveled to Illinois to recover and transport the manuscripts—many previously unknown and never performed—then begin the process of cataloguing, transcribing, and introducing the works to the repertoire. At the end of the day, sheer serendipity alone saved Florence Price from further and almost certainly permanent erasure. As The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross remarked, it’s a stark reminder that Price’s music “came perilously close to obliteration. That run-down house in St. Anne is a potent symbol of how a country can forget its cultural history.”

Although Price’s music is undergoing a well-deserved renaissance to a certain degree, it’s still relatively unknown and remains woefully under-programmed by American orchestras. It’s truly a tragedy because the fact of the matter is this: If Florence Price had been born a white man, she would, without question, currently be regarded as one of the greatest composers in our country’s musical history. Her art songs and piano works would resonate from the stages of recital halls nationwide. Her Violin Concerto No. 2, a highly exploratory work of cinematic splendor, would sit alongside contemporary staples like those written by Barber and Korngold. Her symphonies—bold and vivacious, yet lyrical and contemplative—would be hailed as the paragon of American neo-Romanticism. The conductors and publishers of Price’s day were unable to look past her superficial characteristics, but perhaps we can now appreciate how much of a trailblazer she was and how important her contributions to American music were. It’s long past time for us to acknowledge that Florence Price mattered, her voice mattered, and her music mattered.

-Ian Vlahović


Sources: (Check out this fascinating hour long radio documentary about Florence Price!)

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